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Western Press Review: Germany Runs A Tight Race

By Joel Blocker/Dora Slaba/Annie Hillar

Prague, 25 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- "Too Close to Call" is how, on Page One, the Wall Street Journal Europe today headlines Sunday's general election in Germany. But the expected tight race between Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroeder, the Social Democrat seeking to replace Kohl as chancellor, does not stop the WSJ --and many other West European papers-- from commenting at length on the election's importance and possible outcome.

WALL STREET JOURNAL: It does not matter who wins

The WSJ's news analysis quotes Josef Joffe, Editorial-Page Director of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, as saying, "This is the biggest cliff-hanger in German electoral history." On its editorial page, the paper runs a commentary by Joffe entitled, "A Weak Government, Whoever Wins."

Noting that the most recent opinion polls give Schroeder only a slight edge over Kohl, Joffe writes: "If this were America or Britain, then the world would have to get used to the idea of Mr. Schroeder running Germany single-handedly after Sunday. But Germany is neither. Germany, like every other Continental nation, is stuck with a proportional-representation system which never delivers absolute majorities. The Continent is coalition or 'cohabitation' country."

Joffe asks: "Who then will run Europe's No. 1 economy for the next four years? The good news is: It does not matter. In foreign policy, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats...both support all the good things of German life: NATO, the EU, the common currency and discretion over valor when it comes to using Germany's military muscle abroad....(Domestically,) both will face the same problems and come out with the same solutions...They will have to curb the state and put the market on a longer leash."

EL MUNDO: Many outcomes now seem possible

Spain's El Mundo daily titles its editorial, "Germany: Anything is possible on Sunday." The paper writes: "A victory for the current president of Lower Saxony (Schroeder) would indicate an important generational change but not a huge shift in the country's economic direction nor in its relations with the EU. In fact, Schroeder has smoothed his anti-EU edges and today declares himself a champion of the (new single currency, the) euro."

El Mundo also says: "Given (the closeness of the race), many outcomes now seem possible. They include a possible victory for Kohl, who has withstood four Social Democrat candidates (Vogel, Rau, Lafontaine and Scharping) in the past and who could turn into the politician with the greatest longevity in the history of Germany, surpassing even the legendary Bismarck."

IL MESSAGERO: In the end there will probably be a big embrace

Two Italian dailies also comment on the election. Il Messaggero says it was "a peculiar campaign, a battle to the bitter end --and yet all have known from the start that there will probably be a big embrace after the votes are counted. Many wars end this way, and it could also happen in the German election, which Kohl has always defined as a clear decision between two political directions."

CORRIERA DELLA SERA: The chances of a Grand Coalition seem quite big

The Corriere della Sera writes: "Helmut Kohl himself must admit that in politics, as in love, you should never say 'no'. .. (There is great) uncertainty about what kind of a coalition might emerge from the election. This is because opinion polls in Germany in the past year have made several mistakes --for example, in three regional elections, they underestimated the vote of the extreme Right. At present, the chances of a Grand Coalition (between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) seem quite big."

RHEIN-NECKAR ZEITUNG: Opinion polls have been the kiss of death for German politics

Two German newspapers, both published in Heidelberg, also complain today about the country's fallible pollsters. The Rhein-Neckar Zeitung says that the campaign has been without much substantive content and that market-research companies and their opinion polls are to blame. The paper writes: "When the Green Party, for example, announced a program that would raise the price of gasoline to five marks per liter (three times the current price) over the next ten years, it was the research companies who instantly pointed to a drop in support.....Those involved in opinion polls," the paper concludes, "have not only punished parties for taking strong positions. In the last analysis, they have been the kiss of death for (German) politics."

NORD-WEST ZEITUNG: No-one can now safely predict the winner

The Nord-West Zeitung asks whether the huge financial costs of the campaign have been worth it. The paper writes: "It is unclear whether, after all, political messages have been conveyed to the voters. At the end of the day, as always, it all comes down to personalities rather then politics. But at least this time," the paper concludes, "it promises to be a hugely exciting election, as no-one can now safely predict who the winner is going to be."

IRISH TIMES: Germany's election remains in the balance

The Irish Times writes today: "With two days left before polling, the outcome of Germany's election on Sunday remains in the balance. Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democrats, which appeared to be heading for certain defeat some short months ago, have clawed their way back into contention....The choice facing the people of Germany is clear: whether to stick with the Chancellor --one of the towering figures of the postwar era-- or whether to back Mr. Schroeder, a 54-year-old former lawyer who portrays himself as a torchbearer for a new generation of Germans."

The paper's editorial continues: "(Kohl's) achievements as the architect of German unification and as the prime mover in the drive towards European unity are beyond dispute. But his domestic record is less impressive, characterized by a failure to reform the economy or to take tough action against unemployment, which now --with four million jobless-- is at a level not seen since before World War Two."

"Mr. Schroeder's approach to Europe is more pragmatic than visionary," the paper adds. "The grand vision advanced for so long by Dr. Kohl of anchoring Germany in the New Europe is conspicuously absent. Instead, there is a more pragmatic emphasis on the need to defend Germany's national interests aggressively and to bring the EU closer to the people its serves. At this writing...a Grand Coalition bringing together the two main parties is still possible. Such a move might be popular with voters and the markets --but a parliament in which a huge majority of its members are in power could enhance the appeal of extremist groups."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Germany's international role left people cold...

In a news analysis for the International Herald Tribune, John Vinocur writes that "in the election campaign that comes to a vote Sunday, foreign policy and security affairs were largely missing from the discussion, an absence that looked less like an evasion than a response to a lack of concern. Compared with unemployment, Germany's international role left people cold..."

Vinocur concludes that, "on the grid of German history since 1945, the 1998 election can be seen above all else as a milestone in the country's process of political decompression....German's history may never by normalized, nor the country's responsibilities to the criminal aspects of its past, but what characterized the campaign would pass in most places for normalcy --and this made it just a bit dull....If Mr. Kohl is voted out, he will depart with the irony that his remarkable diplomatic successes created both a climate of security and a lack of interest that limited the appeal of his historical achievements as argument in winning over Germans' backing for a fifth term."